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Why are COVID-19 cases rising: Troup County sees recent spike in coronavirus cases

By Dustin Duncan and Daniel Evans
Daily News

From June 8 to June 16, Troup County has seen its confirmed COVID-19 case count increase by 359.

As of June 16, the Georgia Department of Public Health now lists Troup County at 805 total cases. That number reflects total cases overall, not active cases. Over the last nine days, Troup County has added an average of 36.7 cases per day, according to GDPH numbers.

The number of deaths stands at 23 and the number of overall hospitalizations sits at 100.

Although the number of cases indicates a spike in the case count, reports from the Georgia Department of Health and Human Services says the volume of laboratory testing is decreasing in Troup County.

This number does not take into account private testing.

On Monday, The New York Times, which has an extensive nationwide tracking website for COVID-19, identified LaGrange as one of the nation’s hotspots for new cases.

The website identifies LaGrange as the No. 1 spot out of all U.S. metro cities for the highest average daily growth rate of COVID-19 cases and the highest average daily growth rate of deaths. According to the NYT on Monday, LaGrange’s growth rate is 10 percent and the number of cases is doubling every 7.2 days in LaGrange.

The NYT also lists LaGrange’s daily death growth rate at 17 percent, with deaths doubling every 4.5 days.

The graph shows the number of positive cases of coronavirus in nearby counties. — Graphic by Daniel Evans

What’s happening

Dr. Olugbenga Obasanjo, Georgia Public Health District 4 director, which covers Troup County, said the virus is still community spread.

“People are living their lives like they should, but not carefully,” he said.

He said anecdotally, it seems since Memorial Day, many residents in the county have relaxed on social distancing guidelines. Obasanjo said based on the epidemiology of the disease, the number typically reflects what was happening two weeks prior.

“So, if you look at the timeline, that puts us at Memorial Day,” Obasanjo said.

In May, Obasanjo participated in a community roundtable discussion with LaGrange Mayor Jim Thornton and other local officials, and said Troup County was doing well with social distancing, but now, that’s not the case.

“Four weeks ago, when I made the statement, there was actually the exact opposite,” Obasanjo said. “There was a lot of good social distancing and relatively high use of masks.”

He said health officials have more information now that they didn’t have in March, and if residents do “a religious wearing of masks,” practice social distancing and heed recommendations from the CDC, the numbers of cases will decrease.

Obasanjo also said the economy had to be opened, and people couldn’t stay in their homes forever, but the places that have been able to flatten and bend the curve are following guidelines well.

“Back then (April), we did what we did (shelter-in-place) because we didn’t know. It was like until we learn about this, we need to stay at home,” he said. “We know a bit more now, and humanity has set in. People are stir crazy. We have to open our economy. We can do it safely if we just maintain all the things that we should be maintaining now.”

He said people have to take responsibility and use common sense for their own health.

Dr. Ken Horlander, pulmonology physician with Emory Clark-Holder Clinic, said he’s been hearing about increased cases in Troup County, but he doesn’t feel like he sees it as much in the hospital.

“We definitely have a fair share of people in the hospital, but not like it was during the peak time,” he said.

WellStar West Georgia Medical Center said it is prepared for an influx of patients and can utilize its network of physicians, health professionals and facilities across WellStar hospitals, if needed.

“While we are experiencing increased patient volume at Wellstar West Georgia Medical Center – including patients presenting with COVID-19 symptoms – at this time, we are not at full capacity,” WMGC said in a statement. “WGMC and all of the hospitals and other facilities across our health system are prepared to support an influx of patients.”

Horlander said physicians are not overwhelmed, and healthcare employees seeing COVID-19 patients have a better understanding of how to treat the illness.

“The feeling of not being overwhelmed is also partly because we have a great grasp on how to treat everyone now,” he said. “Much better than during the beginning of this.”

During the peak of COVID-19, WellStar West Georgia Medical Center had to open a new wing because COVID-19 patients were spilling into other units.

Horlander said the hospital had to transform regular hospital rooms into COVID-19 rooms, but right now that additional unit is closed.

Horlander said the increased number could be due to several reasons. He said part of the reason could be due to residents not following social distancing and hygiene guidelines.

However, he also pointed to a large amount of additional testing in the county that wasn’t available a few months ago. He said multiple places in Troup County are testing people, including the Emory Clark-Holder Clinic.

At WellStar, Horlander said every admission is being tested now, which is a far cry from what was happening in March and April.

He said if somebody gets admitted for a heart attack, they are tested for COVID-19, or if they are having a surgery where they are scheduled for anesthesia, they are subject to a test.

“I can tell you, we have had some cases that were positive, and you didn’t suspect it,” Horlander said.

In March and April, Horlander said the county didn’t have many tests, and doctors were sending people home to quarantine who they were sure had COVID-19 but didn’t want to waste a kit on them.

“You might even say it was underreported in the beginning,” he said.

He said Troup County might be seeing increasing numbers because it is doing a better job of identifying people.

“I’m thinking a lot of other counties are just not identifying them,” Horlander said. “That’s why our numbers look higher than other counties.”

The graph shows the number of deaths from COVID-19 in neighboring counties. — Graphic by Daniel Evans

What’s being done

On June 11, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp signed a new COVID-19 executive order extending the shelter-in-place order that went into effect at midnight on June 16 through June 30.

In some instances, the executive order went into immediate effect.

Residents 65 and older were no longer required to shelter in place unless they lived in a nursing home or long-term care facility. Additionally, those with severe health problems and other underlying medical conditions must continue to shelter in place.

Starting on June 16, gatherings of more than 50 people are banned unless there are at least six feet of distance between them. This doesn’t apply to critical infrastructure. There will also no longer be a limit on how many people can sit together at a restaurant or a limit on the number of patrons allowed per square foot.

“Workers at restaurants, dining rooms, banquet facilities, private event facilities and private reception venues are only required to wear face coverings when they are interacting with patrons,” the order said.

In a bar, the capacity has been raised to 50 people from 25, or 35 percent of the total listed fire capacity, whichever is greater.

Movie theatres no longer have a limit on the number of people who may sit together. Also, walk-ins are now allowed at body art studios, barbershops, hair salons, massage therapy establishments and tanning facilities.

Starting July 1, conventions and live performance venues are allowed to open if they can meet specific guidelines.

Locally, LaGrange Mayor Jim Thornton said there isn’t much the local cities can do outside of the governor’s order. However, he said he’s aware of two specific outbreaks in LaGrange — one at the Troup County Jail and one at LaGrange Nursing and Rehab.

Thornton said he also knows there has been much more testing in LaGrange.

“But our rate of cases is growing faster than other communities, which also have increased testing,” he said. “I think it just relates to the fact that people, understandably, want to get out as the summer hits. And I think there has been a general relaxation in the social distancing practices.”

He said the city isn’t asking people to go back to “April lock-down mode” but to follow general best practices set forth by the CDC.

“I don’t think it’s that bad yet,” Thornton said.

He said the city would continue to follow the medical advice from the public health department and the hospital.

He said as long as the public health officials have a handle on the problem, the city will continue following their orders.

In West Point, Mayor Steve Tramell said several people were gathering and not wearing masks in public.

“We can get out, but you still have to keep your distance from people,” he said. “Stick with your family and the ones you cohabitate with.”

Tramell echoed Thornton’s comments by saying there’s nothing local government can do to enforce stricter laws but ask residents to be cautious.

“People need to take personal responsibility for their health. Wear a mask. They are available everywhere now,” he said. “You just have to be more careful. It’s not over.”

Testing

With so many testing options available, health officials said it’s hard to pinpoint how many people in Troup County have been tested for COVID-19.

The LaGrange Daily News reached out to numerous testing sites, including Emory at LaGrange, WellStar West Georgia Medical Center, Summit Urgent Care and Quest Diagnostics. Quest, which is overseeing the testing at Walmart on New Franklin Road, said it does not have an accurate figure for local testing. Piedmont Healthcare, which oversees Summit Urgent Care, pointed the newspaper to the Georgia Department of Public Health.

GDPH District 4 Public Relations Officer Hayla Folden said they don’t receive information on all negative tests given, making it impossible to know how many tests have been given county-wide.

There remains numerous places to get tested in Troup County. Emory at LaGrange is testing physician referred and pre-operative patients.

Walmart on New Franklin Road has a testing site available by appointment. Summit Urgent Care is testing, with information available on its website. Peachtree Immediate Care started testing on Tuesday by appointment only. The medical office was previously only doing the antibody test.

Diving into the numbers

One hundred people in Troup County who have contracted COVID-19 have been hospitalized, according to GDPH numbers. Doing the math, that means just over 12 percent of locals who get the virus are admitted in the hospital.

Just over 1 percent of Troup County residents have contracted COVID-19.

The number of deaths has increased drastically over the last week, but there hasn’t been a new death recorded since Friday.

Of the 23 total deaths in Troup County, four have occurred in individuals 90 and above. Six deaths have been recorded in individuals 80-89, five have occurred in individuals 70-79 and five have occurred in individuals ages 60-69. Two people in the 50-59 age group have died and one person under 49 — a 37-year-old female — have died.

Eighteen females have died in Troup County and five males.

Fourteen of the deaths have occurred in people who classify their race as black and seven who classify their race as white. Two of the individuals who died had an unknown race.

Sixteen of the deaths occurred in a person with an underlying condition.

Two outbreaks have been reported in Troup County, one at the Troup County Jail and one at LaGrange Nursing and Rehab.

According to GDPH’s long-term facility report, which was last updated Monday, there have been 84 total cases at LaGrange Nursing and Rehab. Most of those cases, or 62, have been residents and the other 22 are staff members. Nine residents has died, and 10 residents are considered “recovered.”

The Troup County Sheriff’s Office has announced that approximately two dozen inmates have contracted COVID-19 and some staff members has the virus as well.

Looking forward

Many local entities are making adjustments due to the rise in cases.

The Troup-Harris Regional Library, which includes the LaGrange, Hogansville and Harris County libraries, decided to change course after reopening for one day.

“We decided, after just one day of opening to public browsing, that we would wait and see what happens relative to the recent spike in LaGrange statistics,” Director Keith Schuermann said. “It’s a shame too because so many patrons on Monday expressed gratitude for this stage of our reopening. Considering we serve the broadest of all demographics, we felt it best to fall back in our planning for the safety of all involved. We hope to reopen to browsers on June 22, and will continue to offer limited computer services in our meeting room, and curbside service for materials delivery to the public. Patrons should continue to request items via PINES at www.thrl.org. We will pull and check out your materials for you, and bring them out to you at curbside.”

The county has reinstated previous safety measures at the Troup County Government Center.

That includes temporarily closing select offices to in-person traffic and limiting visitors to 15 inside the building at one time.

The Troup County Tax Commissioner’s Office, The Troup County Elections and Registration Office, The Troup County Community Development Office and the Troup County Clerk of Superior and State Courts Office are all closed to walk-in traffic. The Troup County Probate Court Office and Troup County Solicitor’s Office will continue to handle in-person requests by appointment only.

All of these offices will continue to handle all aspects via phone, email, and mail.

Schools

Superintendent Brian Shumate said he continues to monitor the latest developments on the coronavirus, but at this time, no changes have been made to the in-person graduations scheduled for Troup, Callaway and LaGrange high schools.

“Given the changing conditions of this thing, there is certainly cause for alarm,” Shumate said. “And I’ve said it many times before. We have to hope for the best and prepare for the worst. But we’re hopeful that we can still have in-person graduations on July 23, 24 and 25. We’re hopeful that we can begin school Aug. 10 in some form or fashion.”

TCSS produced a community survey that has 5,200 responses so far, Shumate said.

The survey asks community members their opinion on the reopening of school in the fall.

“We have quite a bit of data coming back, and we’re going to use that data as we make decisions,” he said.

Shumate said he expects to announce the return to school by July 15. A graduation announcement would likely happen a few weeks out if they were to be postponed or canceled. However, he said the state of COVID-19 could change right before the ceremonies, forcing a last-minute change. He said TCSS is undecided about how many spectators will be allowed to attend the graduation ceremony.

The school system also honored graduates with virtual graduations on Monday night.

LaGrange Academy will have its graduation ceremony on Friday night and is limited to only families of the school’s 20 graduates.

Local Businesses

Businesses in Troup County of all sizes have felt the impact of COVID-19.

Kia Motors Manufacturing Georgia said that it’s had 28 total employees test positive for coronavirus. In a statement to the newspaper, Kia said it is currently operating two production shifts, with hopes to be back to full production in the “near future.” Kia’s annual summer shutdown from June 29 to July 5 will continue as planned.

“We have had 28 positive cases of COVID-19 since the pandemic began, none of which have been work-related based on information provided by those team members diagnosed with the virus,” said Patrick Sands, who works in team relations for KMMG. “KMMG has implemented a comprehensive program in an effort to dramatically reduce the risk to our team. These efforts include a daily wellness check, thermal scanning temperature checks, social distance markings, required face coverings and many other activities. The data suggests that our new protocols have been impactful with minimizing the risk in the spread of COVID-19.”

Interface said it has taken numerous steps to prevent transmission in its facilities, including adjusting the shift change processes, increasing cleaning and disinfecting regimens, and communicating regularly with employees to encourage social distancing.

“Consistent with the broader Troup County data, over the past two weeks we similarly have seen an increase in employee-reported positive COVID-19 cases, although our total number of cases since mid-March still remains low,” the company said in a statement. “The timing aligns with a relaxation of restrictions in day-to-day life after our state-wide shelter-in-place restrictions lifted, and almost all affected employees believe they contracted the illness outside of the workplace. This gives us confidence that our steps to prevent transmission inside our facilities are working.”

Great Wolf Lodge LaGrange reopened to the public on Tuesday and said it is taking every precaution to keep guests safe.

“It is our commitment to keep families safe as they play together at Great Wolf Lodge, and allow families to have fun with confidence because of the new safeguards we put into place across our resorts,” the company said in a statement. “As part of our reopening, we introduced our new Paw Pledge program, a company-wide initiative that furthers our commitment to provide for the health, safety and well-being of our guests, employees and overall community. For this program, we collaborated with medical professionals, sanitization specialists and industrial engineers, and used the guidance from health authorities and public officials, to develop a reopening plan that focuses on disinfection and sanitization, physical distancing, personal protection, and minimizing surface interactions in all guest areas across the resort.”

Great Wolf said it has been in contact with local health officials who have been supportive about the steps the resort has taken to keep guests safe.

Those include a wellness check for all guests and the resort is allowing greater flexibility to cancel/change a stay if someone is feeling unwell or feels they may have potentially been exposed to someone at risk for COVID-19.

Sweetland Amphitheatre said it is monitoring the cases in the area as it makes decisions about this year’s concert schedule. The first concert is currently scheduled for July 17.

“We will continue to monitor the number of cases in the area and will adhere to the guidance given by state and local health officials,” said Sweetland Director Keyal Loveland. “Our concert schedule will continue to adjust according to this information. Artists, venues, and promoters are working together across the nation to get concerts rescheduled for the safety of attendees. Safety is our first priority at Sweetland, and we do not want to put patrons at risk while attending a concert. Please join our eNewsletter to receive all updates pertaining to our 2020 concert calendar.”